From listening to her parents chat around the dinner table to winning her own seat on the Dearborn City Council, politics has always been an important part of Erin Byrnes’ life.
Growing up in Dearborn, Byrnes remembers tagging along as a child when her parents went to vote. Her father also constantly listened to NPR, his radio perched on top of the fridge.
In her role as democratic engagement lead for the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning, Byrnes now uses that passion for politics to help students stay informed and engaged in the democratic process as well.
Since 2016, Byrnes has registered student voters and organized campus dialogues around key political issues. For last year’s Big 10 Voting Challenge, she coordinated student voter registration and voter education efforts at U-M and across the conference.
Along with connecting students to elected officials, Byrnes helps plan the WeListen staff discussion series, which brings together staff from across campus to discuss political and social issues like mass incarceration and immigration.
Also wanting to serve her hometown, Byrnes was elected to Dearborn City Council in 2017. She said she ran for a council seat to have a direct effect on people’s lives and increase the number of women on the public body.
“I knew that I wanted to run for something where I could have an immediate, tangible impact. I felt like running and being there on the local level was the best way to do that,” she said.
In her first year on the council, Byrnes said, one major issue was funding retiree health care benefits for city workers like police officers and firefighters. The council eventually decided to issue bonds to meet new state funding requirements.
During a public meeting for those discussions, Byrnes said she heard from a man who represents retired Dearborn police officers and firefighters. This interaction showed her exactly why she ran for council.
“He said, ‘We worked hard for the city. We thought that we were going to be guaranteed these benefits when we retired, and now we’re asking you to fight for us,’ Byrnes said. “That really struck me and will definitely stay with me.
“That’s what it’s about. It’s about listening to people and caring for people and doing everything you can to advocate for what’s fair and what’s right.”
Compared to the political landscape of a decade ago, Byrnes said people now are more polarized, a phenomenon in part due to the prevalence of social media and its ability to create echo chambers.
“Most of us have friend groups and family members who tend to think similarly to the way that we think,” Byrnes said. “So I think that’s a huge challenge.
“One thing we can do and must do in order to move forward from these echo chambers is to intentionally connect with people who have different backgrounds from us, who see things differently.”
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However, through politicians like former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, Byrnes said she thinks people now see that change is possible as well.
“We’ve seen real, tangible change from both our current and former president. I hope people see that when they’re voting, they’re voting for people who will create change on a national and global scale.”
Byrnes plans to continue democratic engagement efforts at the university, and aims to focus on shaping policy, including bringing community needs to the attention of legislators and helping launch the next generation of political leaders.
“I’d love to work more with people who are planning to run for office to make sure they’re doing that in a way that is socially just,” she said. “That’s part of what we do here: We’re about social justice, we’re about equity. The more we can bring that into our political system across the spectrum, the better we’ll be.”